Politics makes strange bedfellows and none stranger than the trio in the latest Syrian crisis that brings together Iranian ayatollahs, Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama. Watching with great interest from the sidelines are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Assad’s survival is in the balance. Strong evidence indicates he has used poison gas more than once to kill thousands of his own citizens with impunity. Obama, who was caught bluffing on previous threats to take strong action against the Syrian regime, says this time he is serious about making Assad pay. But he has shied away from action to seek approval from a Congress that his foes have gridlocked. This hesitation could prove costly for him, but not for Assad or the ayatollahs, who interpret it as American weakness.
Iranian leaders have their own dilemma. They can decide to protect their Syrian client or trade their own pariah status for international acceptance by brokering a political settlement in Syria. That would be only half the price for their new respectability; they would also have to enter into serious negotiations with the West over the future of their nuclear program.
But why bother if the United States is weak, indecisive and unable to present meaningful incentives — i.e., threats?
As for congressional Republicans, they have, with the help of some Democrats, pressed the president to get congressional approval to attack Syria and are inclined to vote no in order to guarantee him a defeat. For many Republicans, Obama is the real enemy and his failure is a higher priority than stopping chemical weapons, punishing Assad or even protecting Israel.
Obama faces a plethora of bad choices. He says his goal is not regime change but to discourage Assad from a repeat performance and to encourage a political solution, but neither he nor anyone else is quite sure how to do that.
He already appears weak and indecisive for having sought congressional permission, but those who block action risk being considered Assad’s enablers, particularly if the Syrian dictator takes congressional disapproval as license to strike again.
The risk for Republicans in blocking an attack onSyria is that in their desire to destroy Obama they will be shifting the blame for future Syrian chemical attacks and Iranian nuclear development from the White House to the GOP.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the actions of both Obama and the Congress are raising questions across Israel about what this means for Obama’s promise to have Israel’s back in any confrontation with Iran.
Many believe the main reason Netanyahu agreed to negotiate again with the Palestinians was not for peace but to protect his relationship with Washington and keep Obama on board in the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear quest.
Republicans made a major effort in last year’s presidential campaign to convince Israel and American Jewry that they are more reliable friends of Israel than Obama, especially when it came to blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If they turn around and block an attack on Syria, they’ll be telling Netanyahu: “You’re on your own.”
Would Obama, stinging from a defeat by Congress, shy away from acting against Iran when it reached the nuclear threshold or would he decide the matter is too important to leave to Congress to decide, especially a hostile GOP, and thus strike out on his own? Even he probably couldn’t answer that question right now.
Israelis appear less worried that Assad would retaliate against them in the event of an American attack than they are about how American action or inaction will be interpreted in Iran.
The Iranians as well as North Koreans and other states with nuclear ambitions will be watching the vote in Congress to judge American determination to avert the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. l
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, lobbyist and consultant.